Several days ago, I asked readers to suggest a way I could put a dead mule into my next book. (If you missed that column, you can read it here.) There were some strange suggestions. Have the mule abducted by aliens? That's probably a bit anachronistic in a Civil War novel, thanks. Have someone cook him for dinner? Yuck! I want my readers to like my characters, not find them disgusting. Let him just drop dead? Well, maybe, but there's not much drama in that scenario. I'd prefer a bit of action, not a total stoppage of action. I was still searching, and you blog readers seemed to be having as much trouble as I was.
Then, lo and behold! A deus ex machina! (If you no longer remember your Latin, that's a reference to a miraculous event -- a solution that seems to drop without warning from a sky hook.)
I was moving on with my research, reading another book of letters written by some of the missionaries who worked in the Port Royal area during the war. And there was my mule -- or to be more precise -- two mules! The letter in question was written by Edward S. Philbrick on December 10, 1862. He was describing conditions on St. Helena Island, just after a new regiment of undisciplined Union soldiers, the 24th Massachusetts, moved into the area.
I felt slightly ashamed that I was rejoicing in the demise of two working mules, but they are exactly what I was looking for. They provide a scene of dramatic tension between Union soldiers, who are supposed to be fighting to put an end to slavery, and the slaves themselves, who seem fated to be victims. Readers can mourn their loss all the more because they are working mules, and heaven knows a mule who will actually work is a rarity. And what could be more characteristic of a southern novel than two admirable mules who die as a natural development of the story?
I have commented elsewhere that I enjoy writing historical fiction because so many real stories are waiting to be told. This is one of them, and it proves again the old adage that "truth is stranger than fiction."